Looking after your mental health if you're a student

Published on: 17th September 2019

It is that time of year again where a lot of people will be returning to the same institution to continue with their studies, while others are going through a huge transition and starting the next stage of their journey through education. It is undoubtedly a time full of emotion, it is exciting as well as nerve provoking and can also be stressful. It doesn’t matter if you are a first year student or finishing off your doctoral thesis, everybody has mental health. Looking after it is essential not only for achieving your very best, but also for your long term wellbeing.

The following information will cover a variety of symptoms and tips for staying well. Reading this can help you keep well but can also help you understand how to look out for those you care for.

What to look out for?

We all experience emotions on a spectrum, this is healthy, however, if you are beginning to feel that a few emotions are ruling the others then it may be worth seeking help. How are you feeling?

  • Down, sad or hopeless
  • Nervous, anxious or an edge
  • Scared, stress or frustrated
  • Or maybe a mix of the above?

When we experience certain emotional reactions that persist they can have an impact on other areas of our life. You may start to notice a change in your physical state with an increase in symptoms such as:

  • Lacking in energy and motivation
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Feeling tired more than usual
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Increase bowel movements
  • Feeling more sweaty
  • Shaking more than before
  • Changes to appetite
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • You may also have noticed other physical symptoms

This is the start of a negative cycle which left untreated can continue to worsen. The above symptoms are unpleasant and can start to impact your thought process. Common thought patterns associated with stress, anxiety and depression can be:

  • I am useless
  • What is the point?
  • What if something bad happens?
  • What if they think I am stupid?
  • I am always worrying about something
  • Nobody cares
  • Are they judging me?

There are endless other unhelpful thoughts you may be experiencing.

The last area of change you may notice in yourself could be in your behaviours. It could be doing more than usual which is out of character or doing less than you ever have before. A few examples of what to look out for include:

  • Avoiding lectures, seminars or workshops
  • No longer planning your work and missing deadlines
  • Spending too much or too little time in bed
  • Withdrawing from social situations and friends/family
  • Self-harming
  • Eating too much or not eating enough
  • Cutting back on exercise or other hobbies when you have time to do them
  • Reliance on caffeine, excessive drinking or taking drugs to cope with any of these symptoms
  • Avoidance of responsibility
  • Procrastinating

As with the other symptom areas there are various other behaviour changes you may notice in yourself or those around you. If help is not sought for these issues then they can become more entrenched. We will look at some tips for staying well before looking at where to get extra help if you need it.

Tips for staying well

Exercise – one of the easiest things to stop doing when you are caught up in learning and socialising is exercise. Exercise is an important contributor for staying well, it not only releases chemicals to keep you feeling good but keeps your mind and body in good shape overall. If you are feeling stressed try and exercise to release that feeling. Can’t afford the gym? No problem, try watching (and getting involved in) free online exercise videos, going for a brisk walk or a jog

Diet – to be able to exercise you need fuel! Don’t cheat your mind and body by relying on convenience and fast food. It will impact your mental functioning negatively as well as making you feel more sluggish and low in energy. Make sure you are keeping a balanced diet, sure, go treat yourself but not for every meal! Try and get into the eating pattern of Meal, Snack, Meal, Snack, Meal, Snack and ensure the portions are not too much or too little.

Alcohol – can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Drinking in excess is never recommended but we know some people like to indulge. Alcohol is a depressant and will slow your functioning so can be detrimental if you are already feeling down or stressed. Even if you are not suffering from anxiety or depression, drinking in excess will negatively impact your functioning and if you do it on a regular basis your grades will suffer. “But first year doesn’t count!” oh but it does! This is where you iron out your mistakes and learn how to get that top grade. Don’t waste this chance, do your best this year and you will know how to improve for next year! Limit the big nights out until after exam times and deadlines.

Hobbies – no matter how busy you are, it is important to set aside some time for the things you enjoy. Whether it is football, dancing, crafts or video games, doing something you enjoy in moderation can help you be more productive when you go back to studying.

Caffeine – everybody has done it where they need that boost of energy so they go for a strong coffee or energy drink. However, this causes issues because when that energy wears off you will feel worse than when you started. Relying on caffeine can impact concentration, quality of work and sleep. Listen to your body and rest if you need to. It is advised to avoid energy drinks and have no more than 4 cups of coffee or 5 teas daily.

Sleep – we all know that too little sleep can make us feel dreadful the next day but it is true that too much sleep can do the same thing. A good sleep routine such as going to bed at the same time each evening and getting up at the same time each morning is key for good wellbeing. The things to avoid to make sure you have a good sleep at night are napping in the day, mobile phones/laptops and tablets within the hour before bed, watching TV in bed and using the bed for reading or eating meals. Where possible keep the bed for sleep only, allow your brain to associate it as the place of rest. We recommend setting aside some time before bed, such as the last hour where you do something relaxing to help you unwind. If you live in a noisy environment try earplugs to block out the noise.

Communication – talking to people is key. Not only for if you are feeling anxious or sad but interacting with those you care about generally is good for your wellbeing. Students often report feeling lonely, especially those who are studying alone on postgraduate courses. Talking to people may help you feel more supported, even if they are not doing the exact same subject as you.

Regularly review expectations – pressure can contribute to depression, stress and anxiety symptoms. Striving for that first? Or the distinction? It is ok to score lower on some modules and in some exams. It is not always possible to maintain that high standard, everybody needs to cut themselves some slack now and again. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need to talk to someone see below for places to get support.


Where to get extra help?

steps2change can also offer you FREE support if you are living in Lincolnshire. We offer short term support for people over the age of 16 who are suffering from anxiety, depression or stress. If you feel sad, depression, worried, anxious or stressed please get in touch. You can find out more information and how to refer yourself on our website.

If you need the pressure taking off speak to your tutor or module leader and they will be able to help.

You can also access University services such as the student wellbeing centre. If you are unsure where it is, simply ask at the front desk or call the university. They will be able to provide you with up to date information on what wellbeing services they offer.

Many Universities also have subscriptions to an online mental health community called Big White Wall www.bigwhitewall.com

Overall, remember that your health and wellbeing is more important than an exam result!

This article was written by Craig Sanderson, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at steps2change.

Students studying at a table